Ask a layman to list the different types of cancer, and you’ll probably get far down that list before they remember leukemia. That may be because leukemia has a name that’s just as recognized ““ people tend to forget that it is ia cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues, including bone marrow and the lymphatic system.
It’s believed the medical world has known about the disease for roughly 1,500 years, because its name is derived from very old Greek words meaning “white blood.” Although 5th century practitioners may have been able to recognize it, treatment options weren’t available until the 19th century.
Here is what we know about leukemia today:
- It’s aptly named.
Leukemia usually starts in the white blood cells, which are an important part of the immune system. In people with leukemia, the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells, which don’t function properly.
- It’s the most diagnosed form of cancer.
Your chances of developing leukemia are 35 in one million, which seems hardly a risk at all. But, because of leukemia’s mortality rate “” it rarely is a fast-acting cancer “” around 310,000 Americans currently live with the disease. The median five-year survival rate of leukemia is about 54 percent.
- Leukemia has two basic types.
Leukemia can either present in acute forms, meaning a rapid advance of the disease, or chronic. Chronic forms of leukemia develop more slowly and can be present for a long time without any symptoms being noticed.
- It typically strikes the old.
The median age of people who die from leukemia is 74, according to the National Cancer Institute, so it’s known generally as an “end of life disease.” Because diagnosis tends to come so late in life, it coincides with normal human life spans, which skews the mortality rates a bit.
- But it attacks children, too.
Leukemia causes more deaths than any other childhood cancer, though children are diagnosed with the disease at a rate only a tenth of adult diagnoses.
- Men are at higher risk than women.
Men are 31 percent more likely to be diagnosed with leukemia than women, and their rate of dying from leukemia is around 30 percent higher than female victims.
- Leukemia has red flags aplenty.
Though symptoms vary widely from patient to patient, general feelings of fatigue, frequent infections or night sweats often lead to a leukemia diagnosis. People with leukemia tend to bruise more easily, can have bleeding gums, experience pain in the joints or the bones or abdominal swelling. Swollen lymph nodes are also common.
- Treatment is making big strides.
Treatment, including chemotherapy and marrow transplants, have made a huge stride in helping people survive leukemia. In just the past 40 years, the five-year survival rate has tripled. In the 1970s, only 10 percent of kids who were diagnosed with leukemia of any type would survive five years. Today, that figure is more than 80 percent.
We still have many questions about leukemia ““ what causes it, what triggers an acceleration of symptoms from chronic forms making it an acute condition and, of course, a cure. Research continues at hundreds of universities and hospitals worldwide, which means we’re likely to see even more strides in prevention and care of this killer.